For the past two-and-a-half months, Capital Region jazz drummer Joe Barna has called the new Lark Tavern home.
That’s how long Barna and his band, Sketches of Influence, have been performing every Tuesday night at the newly renovated venue, which reopened in January of this year after a fire devastated the building at 453 Madison Ave. in Albany, leaving it closed for more than 18 months.
But it hasn’t been an easy journey to this point, for either musician or the venue.
For Barna, these concerts are a culmination of years of dissatisfaction with playing the same old standards at jazz gigs in the Albany area and an intense eight-month period last year during which Barna sold all of his possessions, quit his teaching job and began traveling the world.
“I thought about what I wanted to do, my purpose in this world,” Barna said. “I wrote everything down in a notebook that I still have — everything that I want to accomplish, what I thought was most important to me. What it came down to was making sure that whatever it is I need to say musically gets said correctly, with integrity, and with respect to the great jazz musicians that have come before me that were writers and pioneers.”
Back in Albany, the Lark Tavern was in the process of being renovated under new owners Ryan Hancox, his wife, Mary Silverstein, and Laura and Rocco Bianchino. The two couples took over the lease on the building from Tess Collins, who operated Tess’ Lark Tavern from 2004 until the 2010 fire. (Mike DiNapoli, owner of DiNapoli Opticians in Delmar, still owns the building.)
The new Lark Tavern officially opened on Jan. 14, now with two stages — the original back-room stage, which has been rebuilt, and a new front stage featuring a piano. Soon the business began hosting a piano bar during happy hour on Friday nights.
“There was the fire, so it was a total rehab,” Laura Bianchino said. “We put a lot of money, time and effort into rebuilding it to be a place where good acts would come.”
When Barna returned to the Capital Region, he took notice. After meeting with Rocco Bianchino, the two came up with the idea to hold a weekly jazz concert.
“I went to the Lark Tavern, met with the people and saw the venue, and I was amazed at what they had done and what they were willing to do,” Barna said. “I met with Rocco first; I talked with Laura, Ryan, all those guys, and they seemed like they knew what the mission was, what the goal was, what they wanted to contribute to the Albany music scene. They wanted to do more than just have bands come in and just play; they wanted to be a venue that hosts live music, and they wanted to do something that other people weren’t really showing the courage or support for.”
Barna’s shows feature all-original music. “The whole idea is that every song I write is about a human being, the experience I’ve had with them — Lee Shaw, Lee Russo, my mother, teachers of mine,” Barna said. “I write music that sounds like the person. If you were to meet this person, this sounds like they are as a person.”
Jazz drawing interest
So far, the shows have been a success, with sold-out performances each week according to Barna. And it has led to another fixture at the Lark Tavern — a monthly showcase hosted by Barna and featuring national, critically acclaimed jazz artists from New York City. So far, there have been three of those showcases, most recently one featuring baritone saxophonist Gary Simulyan and Albany trumpeter Dylan Canterbury this past Thursday.
It isn’t all jazz at the new Lark Tavern. The venue has also hosted shows on Saturday nights featuring local artists such as Danielle Gaudin, Tom Healy and the Charlie Smith Blues Band, along with the piano bar. But the jazz events seem to be drawing the most interest.
“We met Joe, he started bringing the band in and people responded to it,” Laura said. “[This audience] knows their jazz artists, and it’s been bringing up the kind of more acclaimed artists. We’re just going with it. We’ll try different things, and what works, works. If people like it, we’ll keep giving them more of it.”
Collins still has a strong following on the local music scene. She had expressed interest in reopening the Lark Tavern, but a legal battle with DiNapoli over insurance and lease issues eventually edged her out. Collins declined to comment on the new Lark Tavern or its current operations.
However, Collins has found a new home at McGeary’s Irish Pub in Clinton Square, across from the Palace Theatre. The venue has been hosting live music events, including a weekly Monday night show featuring the Ramblin Jug Stompers, the Best Damn Open Mic Ever! on Wednesday nights, benefit shows and other events. Collins said she hopes to begin hosting live music on the patio in the summer, although there are licensing issues to be dealt with.
Despite all this, there seems to be room for both the new Lark Tavern and McGeary’s to thrive.
“A lot of the same people obviously come in, and they seem to have loved the old bar, but they seem to equally love the new bar,” Laura said. “It’s done very nice, all brick, with nice woodwork. It has a tavern feel, and again we’re doing a lot of live music, so in a lot of ways it kind of has the same feel, just newer. Cleaner, I guess, is the word I hear a lot. We’ve had a great reaction, and everyone seems very happy to have the Lark Tavern back.”
Fan of the old place
Not all of the venue’s old regulars are enthusiastic about the new digs. Tom McWatters, who regularly performed at Tess’ Lark Tavern, has not been inside the venue since the renovations and has no plans to.
“I got a lot of gigs at the old one, and I played at the benefit for the old Lark Tavern,” McWatters said. “I was definitely more of a fan of the old place being fixed up, as opposed to being sold. I mean, I don’t have anything personal against the people running it, but the same guy owns the building, who pushed Tess out. I really can’t give the guy my business.”
Barna urged anyone who has trepidation about the new venue to come and see it — and hear it — for themselves.
“For the people that were devout followers of the old Lark Tavern, and maybe they were friends with the owners of that era, I would hope that they would allow themselves the opportunity to please come out and experience this venue for the first time all over again,” Barna said. “What’s going on down there right now is so special and unique to the Captial Region. I think it would be unfortunate for individuals so stuck in old times to miss out on something that’s growing and special because of some sort of nostalgic attachment to what it used to be.”